Janet Reno’s Call Over Elian Gonzalez
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JIM LEHRER: Attorney General, welcome. What is your reaction to the reaction to what you did on what you did – what you ordered done on Saturday morning?
ATTORNEY GENERAL JANET RENO: We had one goal over time; that was to reunite the little boy with his father. We tried every way we knew how to do it in a voluntary, peaceful way; that didn’t work, and so we proceeded with the law enforcement initiative. In all these instances I try to make the best judgment I can and then I move forward.
JIM LEHRER: The decision to use armed agents, why was that done. Why did the agents have to be armed?
JANET RENO: Originally the family had said that they would obey the law, and it might have been possible to go to the house and take the child. But the crowds were large, and I think even Lazaro made clear that we would have to run the gauntlet of the crowds. Then their story changed, and they said, “you’re going to have to take him by force.” There was information that it might be possible that there were guns in the crowd or in the home. In those circumstances, it’s very important that the people who go into the house do so in a way that can protect everybody and do so in – appropriately armed with appropriate care and appropriate training. From what I’ve seen, they did a very good job.
JIM LEHRER: Did the agents in fact find any weapons the house or among the crowd?
JANET RENO: They weren’t looking for the weapons. They were looking for the child, and they got the child.
JIM LEHRER: Sure. But did anybody in the house brandish a weapon – or point a weapons -
JANET RENO: Not to my knowledge.
JIM LEHRER: Were there t weapons of the agents in fact loaded with live ammunition?
JANET RENO: Yes.
JIM LEHRER: What were the rules of engagement? Under what circumstances could they have fired those weapons?
JANET RENO: If they were… if there was danger to themselves or others, great… for death or great bodily harm.
JIM LEHRER: And that was all clearly worked out? So when we still see the guns in the pictures, it’s very clear as to what they were supposed to do with them?
JANET RENO: What you saw was a law enforcement operation that went the right way — people who were well trained, who knew what they were doing, who were properly in command with the sufficient show of force, not use of force, that enabled them to get in, get the boy in three minutes, and get out.
JIM LEHRER: Much has been said about an agreement, a negotiated agreement was very close the other morning. From your perspective, how close were you to making a deal?
JANET RENO: We had tried for so long. We had negotiated on a number of occasions. We had thought we had reached an understanding on several occasions, only to have it evaporate out from under because they changed the terms. In these two days, community leaders had become involved, and those community leaders tried their very best and acted in the best of good faith, but what we had suggested to them was, give us something that you can live with that the family has agreed to, and then let us transmit it and see if we can work it out. Mr. Coffey suggests that I had agreed to it. I had simply said, “let us get something transmit it, talk through the issues.” One of the issues was whether they were going to require that the father come to Miami. I had mentioned that that might not work out because he might not want to confront the tension and the hostility that existed in the community about the issue. During the course of the evening, we were told that that was the case, that he would want it somewhere out of Florida. And we had…
JIM LEHRER: This was the father who would not go to Florida?
JANET RENO: That’s correct. At that point I talked to Mr. Pothurst, who is a dear friend who and I admire very much…
JIM LEHRER: Who’s a community leader in Miami, an old friend of yours?
JANET RENO: That’s correct. And I said, “They’ve indicated they will go anywhere, even as recently as yesterday.” And I was told, well, the family hadn’t authorized that. And it sounded like we were just getting back into the point where it would evaporate and there would be no deal and we would be further delayed. And this was the time – the most propitious time to take appropriate enforcement action.
JIM LEHRER: Were you in fact on the telephone still with somebody when the raid commenced?
JANET RENO: Yes. Mr. Pothurst had asked me if he could put me on hold, and I was on hold from about five past five to 5:15. As he came back on the line about that time it happened.
JIM LEHRER: You told him the raid… He… Did he already knew the raid was under way?
JANET RENO: He knew the raid was under way. He knew. He said, “They’re here. How could you have done it?”
JIM LEHRER: That must have been an emotional time for you.
JANET RENO: It was.
JIM LEHRER: How much time was there between the time you said go and the time you knew that it had succeeded, from your perspective?
JANET RENO: There were points along the way during the… from the point we said, “Go ahead and leave the place where they had mustered.” And I don’t recall the exact time on that. At one point, at about 4:00, it was go — I told Mr. Pothurst that time had run out. He called me back at 4:21. We both remember 4:21 because he said, “I just need five minutes.” I said, “five minutes is all.” He said 4:21.” “4:26″ And we were both -
JIM LEHRER: And the agents were already on their way to the house at that point, correct?
JANET RENO: That’s correct. We asked for a hold of about five minutes at that point.
JIM LEHRER: The agents literally pulled off to the side of the road?
JANET RENO: I’m not sure. I’m told that’s what happened.
JIM LEHRER: Now, Eric Holder says that was a very… When I say an emotional time, that you actually wept at that moment. Is that correct?
JANET RENO: No. After it was all over and the little boy was on the way, he gave me a big hug, and I got teary.
JIM LEHRER: Yeah, yeah. Did you feel that… at that moment that you had done the right thing, at that exact moment as well?
JANET RENO: Whenever you see a situation like this, one of the reasons we had tried so hard to make it work, why we had taken every step we knew how to try to affect a voluntary turnover of the child was because I knew there was the possibility of cameras in the house. I knew we would see scenes like this. I knew that little boy would have to face something. And I said, “How can we go through that?” But at some point, it had to be done. And I think those agents did it, and in the finest, best way possible.
JIM LEHRER: Did you consider an interim step of putting four or five agents, in plain clothes, unarmed, go to the door, knock on the door, say, “Here’s an order from the Attorney General of the United States. We’ve come to get this little boy. Give him to us.”?
JANET RENO: We considered all such–I thought of going up there myself.
JIM LEHRER: You yourself going and knocking on the door?
JANET RENO: Because it’s very difficult to ask agents to go up in a law enforcement situation where they should be in full control of the situation. And I thought, let me go up. But the crowds were very clear that they were going to intervene in any effort to extract Elian from the home. And we again tried to look at it as to what was best and how we could work it out. And barring a voluntary turnover, the law enforcement initiative that was undertaken seemed, based on everybody’s experience, to be the best course to follow.
JIM LEHRER: What do you make of statements now from members of the family, we just ran some of them, if you had gone to the door and asked, they would have given you the boy?
JANET RENO: We would still have to face the crowd as we turned out and turned away. And what we had asked them was, bring the boy in so that it can be done in a prompt and orderly way that causes the little boy as little disruption as possible. He’s a strong, wonderful little boy. And he has overcome a lot, but I wish that it could have been done in a different way.
JIM LEHRER: Congressman DeLay said you didn’t have a search warrant. Is that so?
JANET RENO: He was mistaken.
JIM LEHRER: Did you consider another interim step of going and getting a court order, in addition to your search warrant and to your own administrative order from the Justice Department?
JANET RENO: We had the ruling of the district court, which said that my decision was controlling and that the court upon judicial review of my decision did not see a reason to overturn it.
JIM LEHRER: What do you say to those who complain, who are complaining about what you did? The basic complaint is that this is no way to resolve what is basically a civil matter involving the custody of a six-year-old child in the United States of America.
JANET RENO: It’s not an issue with respect to custody. The father should have custody of the child. This was the father’s little boy that he had done a darn good job of helping to raise by everybody’s account. That’s one thing that everybody can agree on, that this is a very special little boy and that the father had a real role in the first six years of his child’s life. For nine days previous to this effort, we had… nine days before, we had revoked the parole of Lazaro Gonzales because he had failed to produce the child as required.
JIM LEHRER: Excuse me, you use the word parole — he had custody of child…
JANET RENO: No. Under immigration terms, the child was paroled to his care. And we revoked that parole, so he had no legal standing. He had gone into family court, but the family court in a very clear decision, the local court had said, “this is a matter to be decided by federal law.” And here was — in effect — a little boy being kept from his father. And we had a responsibility because, as the enforcer of immigration laws, he was in effect in the custody of INS and through the INS the attorney general. And it was time he returned to his daddy.
JIM LEHRER: How involved in your decision was President Clinton?
JANET RENO: I had the chance to talk to President Clinton a number of times. I flew back from Oklahoma City with him after Wednesday. We talked at length. I talked to him beginning at about 5:00 or about 4:45 on Friday afternoon. I talked to him again about 8:00 that night. And then I talked to him through my chief of staff, who would talk to his chief of staff. And then I talked to him right afterwards.
JIM LEHRER: What about Vice President Gore, how involved was he?
JANET RENO: I did not talk with him.
JIM LEHRER: Was this… here again, one of the lawyers said he doubted whether or not this was really Janet Reno’s decision. Was he wrong?
JANET RENO: It was Janet Reno’s decision.
JIM LEHRER: Did you feel, though, that if you had wanted to do something else you could have done something else?
JANET RENO: The President was very clear about that.
JIM LEHRER: In what way?
JANET RENO: He said, I could call it.
JIM LEHRER: Did he say, “I sure would like to get this thing resolved?”
JANET RENO: I think we’d all like to have gotten the thing resolved a lot earlier.
JIM LEHRER: But if anybody’s sitting out there wondering whether or not there was either an implied or a shadowed kind of influence on you, subtly, directly, indirectly, whatever, didn’t happen.
JANET RENO: It didn’t happen. I polled my staff. I talked to them. We sat there and looked at everything that was involved and made the decision.
JIM LEHRER: What about the desire now of the Miami relatives to see Elian and his father, are you going to allow that?
JANET RENO: What I would hope is we could provide expert assistance. We have a very distinguished psychiatrist who is an expert on issues with respect to children — speaks Spanish fluently — and it would be my hope that we could now determine what would be the most appropriate way to proceed with a visitation, if appropriate, and how it could be done.
JIM LEHRER: You don’t have any objections to it in principle, in other words?
JANET RENO: Not in principle, but I think it would be best to talk with experts about how it might best be done, if it should be done.
JIM LEHRER: If Juan Miguel Gonzalez came to you and said, “hey, I want to go home. I want to take my boy, and I want to go to Havana tomorrow,” would you let him go?
JANET RENO: No. There is a federal court order that says he can’t go. He can go, but the boy can’t.
JIM LEHRER: And there’s no way around that? And you would enforce that order on -
JANET RENO: I would enforce that.
JIM LEHRER: Is the boy and the father going to stay at Andrews Air Force base for a long time? What’s the plan?
JANET RENO: They will be relocated in the Washington area.
JIM LEHRER: And that is until… Itself May 9, is it not, that the court in Atlanta…
JANET RENO: The oral argument is May 7 or May 9. I don’t recall the exact date — and then of course the court will have to consider its ruling and determine what its ruling shall be.
JIM LEHRER: Your conscience is clear? If you had the same set of circumstances at 5:00 on Saturday morning again, you’d do it again?
JANET RENO: I’d do it again.
JIM LEHRER: Attorney General Reno, thank you.